What does the new Gmail API mean for Internet standards?

What does the new Gmail API mean for Internet standards?

Summary: Google quietly released a new set of Gmail APIs today, giving developers access to some of the building blocks of its popular Gmail protocols. But the message to developers was clear: Don't even think about building your own client.

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TOPICS: Mobility, Google
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While Google was dazzling an audience of developers today with shiny new hardware, yet another stab at Internet TV, and even a giveaway made from cardboard, another more substantial change was happening behind the scenes.

In a post at the Google Apps Developer Blog, Gmail Technical Lead Eric DeFriez introduced a new API for Gmail, giving developers a set of tools to tap into Gmail accounts and, in the process, fanning fears that some venerable Internet email standards might be riding off into the sunset.

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The new API offers fine-grained access to a Gmail user's account, allowing an app developer to make simple HTTPS calls and get responses in a variety of formats, with OAuth 2.0 authorizing access behind the scenes.

The new Gmail API includes tools that allow programmatic access to messages and labels, so that a web-based app can send or delete a message and change the labels on existing messages.

In theory, an app developer could build a complete (albeit simple) Gmail client using the new API. But that use case is frowned upon in the introduction to the Gmail API, which sternly warns that "the Gmail API should not be used to replace IMAP for full-fledged email client access."

Instead, the developers' guidelines suggest, the new API should be used for new apps that do simpler tasks, such as:

  • Read-only mail extraction, indexing, and backup
  • Label management (add/remove labels)
  • Automated or programmatic message sending

Now, offering APIs to developers to get to users' email accounts isn't a new feature. Microsoft Office announced a similar API (one that does a lot more, actually) last March.

The new move by Google offers a very limited entrée into Gmail accounts, keeping the full Gmail API under lock and key as a proprietary weapon for Google's own apps. And on platforms where it chooses not to deliver an app, most notably Windows 8.x and Windows Phone, Gmail users get a substandard experience.

As an email standard, IMAP is a horrible mess, and moving away from reliance on IMAP for interoperability is probably in the better interests of everyone who uses the Internet. But moving to a completely proprietary standard as Google is doing with Gmail is problematic as well.

Microsoft's server-side email solutions all support Exchange ActiveSync, which can be readily licensed by software developers, with Microsoft offering a long-term commitment to the standard. Gmail is Google's mail protocol, controlled and administered by Google and subject to change at its whims.

As of today, Google invests considerably in Gmail clients for iOS and Android, but Windows users are left mostly to web-based solutions. For enterprise customers that connect to Google Apps accounts (which use the same protocols as free Gmail accounts), most of the alternatives are messy, to say the least.

Today's announcements are good news for anyone who lives in an all-Android environment, and the outcome will probably be OK for iOS users as well, because of the investment that Google makes in iOS apps.

It's unlikely that Google will drop support for IMAP as some have suggested, at least in the near term. Too many business clients count on that base-level support. But you can count on Google leaving IMAP support far behind as the rest of the platform moves on.

Topics: Mobility, Google

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23 comments
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  • Google becoming a walled garden

    In the end Google has become the next Apple. As much as we thought eventually a company like Google would break out of the Microsoft and Apple mold of a walled garden. Google seems bent on becoming exactly what I thought they would not do.
    JohnnyES-25227553276394558534412264934521
    • Don't think so

      Anything that does imap and which has opened up another set of APIs isn't walling off. Doesn't mean they're the best, or the most open, but it does mean they aren't walling off.

      I see this as beginning to supplant SMTP, between this and what Microsoft has. SMTP has been retrofitted for anti-spam security, but it isn't innate. Modern style APIs with an API key and a developer license may put an end to the abuse of third party mail relay.
      Mac_PC_FenceSitter
    • Becoming? When exactly was it *not* a walled garden?
      Fleet Command
    • Google becoming a walled garden? Depends

      "Google seems bent on becoming exactly what I thought they would not do." -- That's the stuff conspiracists will mostly be happy to tell us, because they don't look at the bigger picture. Seeing dots is one thing, connecting them another thing. The new generation of entrepreneurs is not like the young Bill Gates. Bill Gates has changed too of course (I'm a big fan of his philanthropic activities). Everyone can change. There is this new openness today, and I think it is essentially a deeper understanding of an important difference, perhaps best understood as the difference between "greed" and "enlightened self-interest" (but don't pin me down about these terms, even there we have different interpretations). It boils down to a better understanding that we are at heart social beings, who want to pursue happiness, but not alone - rather with the others. When I hear Larry Page and Sergey Brin talking, I realize Google is really built in this fashion. Things can always go wrong in the future, we can never be sure - but there's no need to pee in our pants just because we observe Google protecting a certain ecosystem.
      *bernie
  • Exchange ActiveSync is proprietary as well.

    It would be great if MS, Google, FB, Apple, Yahoo.... Would sit down and developer a great new? Highly secure email transport that is standards based and royalty free to encourage mass adoption.
    Bruizer
    • No, No, No

      You can't do that it's far too sensible an idea and far too consumer friendly.
      Alan Smithie
      • LOL, I agree

        And it is clear from the grumbling about Google not developing for Win 8 that Microsoft does not like being treated the way they have treated Linux for so many years.
        BoxOfParts
    • The choice here is proprietary+walled off and proprietary+extensible.

      I am taught that everyone is entitled to the sweat of his own brow. So, I don't really see what is the objection when it comes to proprietary stuff.
      Fleet Command
    • What you would end up with...

      ...is a protocol designed by committee that does everything but nothing well.
      Rann Xeroxx
  • IMAP

    > As an email standard, IMAP is a horrible mess

    IMAP is a protocol that has survived the test of 30 years.

    thoughts?
    bcmoore87
    • Thought

      Most human adapts and improvise to the next best thing they have
      Until inventors made them a new way/tool
      cAllain
    • I know a dilapidated ruin outside my city that has survived for 300-ish years. What's your point?
      Fleet Command
  • EAS is closed and not free

    Even if Microsoft is willing to support licensees, Google would be crazy to rely on Microsoft for an email API/protocol.
    The best, would be all of them to get together... maybe one day.
    AleMartin
    • The best, would be all of them to get together...

      That is the day when aliens land at all the world leader's locations and announce they are our creators here to re-gain their rule on Earth.
      BoxOfParts
  • A typical Ed Bott article...

    Google creates their own proprietary API...bad. Then references a Microsoft proprietary API as good. Nice to know that after all these years, some things never change. Bott being a Microsoft shill is one of those things.
    jasonp@...
    • Not sure which article you read...?

      Ed quoted the Gmail API introduction warning - that's factual. There was no morality judgement.

      He then made another statement (perhaps more subjective? I'm not familiar enough with both to make that call) about MS releasing a more full-functioned API. Again, no morality judgement on his part.

      The overall article is critical of Google's API, but nothing so overt as what you claim. And if factually correct, the underlying opinion also has merit.
      Nierteroth9
      • I've seen Microsoft-fan bloggers

        I've read, commented and tossed out of their blog.

        When InfoWorld justly calls them "Microsoft fan", they publish their first non-Microsoft post to denounce how they are not Microsoft fans. Then they continue being a Microsoft fan.
        Fleet Command
    • And you being

      a scroogle shill hans't changed. See anybody can do that.
      hoppmang
  • Lines like this

    are why you get called a Microsoft shill.

    "Microsoft's server-side email solutions all support Exchange ActiveSync, which can be readily licensed by software developers, with Microsoft offering a long-term commitment to the standard. Gmail is Google's mail protocol, controlled and administered by Google and subject to change at its whims."

    I can completely reverse the wording and have the statement be just as accurate.

    "Google's mail protocol is freely available with Google offering a long-term commitment to the standard. Microsoft's server-side email solution must be purchased and is subject to change by Microsoft on a whim."
    baggins_z
    • Good one

      Microsoft commitment and support around their technologies are historically good, but that doesn't say everything.
      Microsoft EAS licensing terms are far from clear, it's impossible per example to know how much it cost.
      AleMartin